Easter Success Is Vital To Escape Relegation

The Easter holiday is a moveable feast – in the last five seasons it’s been as early as the end of March and as late as the end of April – but regardless of the date there seem to be consistent trends in the Championship. I took a look back at the tables going into the Easter programme from 2006/07 onwards and it would appear that Easter isn’t as crucial to any of the main issues as fans and pundits might like to think:

* In every season since 2006/07, the clubs in the top two positions going into the Easter programme have been promoted. In four of those five seasons the team at the top of the table at Easter has gone on to win the Championship.

* In four of the last five seasons, the playoff winners have been in the top six. The only exception: Blackpool, who were 7th at the start of the Easter programme in 2009/10. Only two of the eventual playoff winners were in third place going into Easter – Birmingham City in 2007 and Hull City the following season.

* At the bottom of the table, the clubs in 23rd and 24th place were eventually relegated in each of those five seasons. However in three of the last five seasons the club in 22nd place managed to survive and in two of those seasons it was the club in 20th place that was relegated

It’s worth pointing out that there are still six games and eighteen points left for each team, but if those trends stay the same the following scenario might not be that much of a a surprise at the end of the month:

Southampton & Reading will be playing in the Premier League next season. Only the top seven clubs have a realistic chance of promotion via the playoffs and although West Ham should qualify for the post season, it’s unlikely they’ll be successful in returning the Premier League. At the bottom, Portsmouth & Doncaster appear to be already doomed, Bristol City’s survival is in their own hands and Millwall are not out of the woods by any means.

Although there are a couple of games between the current top six over the next few days, it’s the fixtures at the bottom of the table that are the most interesting, with two clubs currently in the bottom three playing twice against teams in similar positions. Thirty years ago Bristol City were in a very similar position to the one that Portsmouth currently find themselves this season, but both teams are currently in danger of being relegated to League 1 at the end of this month.

It was only four seasons ago that Bristol City were 90 minutes and one win away from playing in the Premier League, but since then there has been an annual decline in their performance in the Championship. At their best, the Robins are a mid table team but they’ve been increasingly unreliable defensively. Combine that with poor starts to the last two campaigns, a bad case of managerial instability and the calamitous lack of goals this term and you have a recipe for Championship disaster that other sides should take note of.

Bristol City’s first game over the Easter period is at Nottingham Forest (5:20pm Saturday, Sky Sports 2), which isn’t exactly a fixture the visitors have had a lot of success in over the years. The Robins haven’t won at Forest in a league game since November 1955 (fourteen games at the City Ground since) but have at least ground out draws at Portsmouth and Middlesbrough in their last two away games – although drawing at Middlesbrough is arguably the least any visiting club should expect this season. It’s also worth remembering that despite their apparent recent resurgence in form, Forest have only won two of their last ten games at the City Ground and have lost more games than they’ve won against the current bottom six.

On Easter Monday Coventry City are the visitors to Ashton Gate. An own goal from Liam Cooper and a late winner from Cody McDonald meant the Sky Blues won at Hull last weekend for their first away triumph in the league for almost a year, but Coventry have never won consecutive games at Bristol City and have only picked up one point from a possible 12 on their travels against other sides in the bottom six this season. Oddly enough, Bristol City’s home form against their fellow strugglers is the one bright spot at Ashton Gate this season: unbeaten in four games having only conceded one goal.

Having entered administration for the third time since the late 1990s – and with a track record of financial problems dating back to the mid 1970s – Portsmouth have six games to save themselves from being relegated into the bottom half of the football league for the first time since 1982/83. It’s only two years since Portsmouth lost the FA Cup final and were relegated from the Premier League, but it’s worth noting that even without the points deduction the club would be in the bottom six – albeit above Nottingham Forest due to a better goal difference.

The immediate problem Portsmouth face on the field is that they have the toughest Easter games of any of the teams threatened with relegation. Pompey play at Southampton on Saturday lunchtime, which is probably the last game you’d chose under the circumstances: your bitterest rivals are on the point of being promoted to the Premier League, Rickie Lambert is the division’s leading scorer by a mile while you’ve won only one of your last ten away games and have failed to score in six of those games. Not only that, Southampton have won three of their four home games against the current bottom six this season while Portsmouth have lost all but one of their away games against the current top six.

On Monday, Portsmouth play Millwall at Fratton Park in a game where anything could happen. The Lions have a decent record on the road, having lost only three of their last ten away days but then again they’ve only won once at Fratton Park in their last ten visits. Portsmouth’s home form seemed to have improved but their injury time collapse against Burnley last weekend seems to indicate that the uncertainty over the future of the club is taking a toll. I think it’s fair to say that by Monday evening we’ll have a far better idea of the future of Portsmouth FC.

For once there’s a decent amount of Championship football on television over Easter, starting with Reading v Leeds (Sky Sports 1, 2:00pm) and Barnsley v West Ham (BBC1, 5:15pm). I’ve already mentioned Bristol City’s trip to Nottingham Forest tomorrow evening and on Monday evening Birmingham’s trip to West Ham is on Sky Sports 1 at 5:20pm.

All being well I’ll be back on Saturday evening with a quick review of the significant action over the next two days but for now I’ll wish you a Happy Easter…and my next task will be to remember where I’ve hidden my wife’s chocolate egg.

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What’s Gone Wrong At Cardiff City?

Before the Carling Cup Final, Cardiff City sat third in the table and were just four points off the top. Less than one month later, they find themselves in eigth position after just one win in the seven league games that followed.

With automatic promotion now just a pipe dream, Malky Mackay‘s early season high-flyers are in real danger of missing out on the play-offs completely. This was unthinkable just a few short weeks ago and it is too simplistic to blame a downturn in form on a “Wembley Hangover”.

Here are five reasons that may explain the Bluebirds’ dramatic slide down the table:

Lack of Transfer Activity

Despite huge transfer activity at the beginning of the season which saw seven players leave and nine arrive, City have not capitalised on the January transfer window to bring in adequate reinforcements.

Championship leaders Southampton brought in Billy Sharp to help Rickie Lambert fire the club into the Premier League while Reading drafted in veteran Jason Roberts from Blackburn and loaned in Arsenal youngster Benik Afobe and Portsmouth midfielder Hayden Mullins.

Cardiff City, on the other hand, loaned in Haris Vuckic from Newcastle, who had one decent game against Peterborough United but was virtually invisible during his four other appearances.

Liam Lawrence has also arrived on loan – from struggling Portsmouth and on a rumoured £18,000 a week wage. He’s a decent enough player at this level but his only contribution of note so far has been a booking during a 3-0 home defeat against Hull.

The lack of new arrivals is not necessarily the manager’s fault. Money was made available during the transfer window and the club reportedly missed out on Brighton winger Craig Noone, Blackpool forward Matt Phillips and Watford striker Marvin Sordell who joined Bolton for £3.2 million.

Not Using the Squad Enough

With results on the slide and no notable players arriving at the club, you would think the manager would freshen up the starting line-up with other members of his squad?

Not Malky

After months out in the cold, striker Robert Earnshaw has only returned to match action and has looked bright and eager to score during his appearances of the subs bench.

A midfield short on ideas has seen winger Craig Conway left out in recent matches while youngster Joe Ralls has disappeared off the radar. Recent singing from Wycombe Wanderers, Kadeem Harris, is also yet to make his debut.

Defensively, Kevin McNaughton appears to be a shadow of his former self but fellow full-backs Lee Naylor, Paul Quinn are nowhere near the first team squad while Darcy Blake only gets fleeting appearances off the bench.

As far as centre backs in the Championship go, Dekel Keinan looked decent last season and real set-piece threat but has been farmed out on loan to both Crystal Palace and Bristol City this term.

Not Holding Onto a Lead

This is not something new at Cardiff City. Regardless of the manager or playing staff, the Bluebirds have always been vulnerable to conceding late goals.

Last season, while Norwich City won promotion to the Premier League as last-minute winner experts, the Bluebirds have continually failed to hold onto a lead.

Fans of in-play betting would not even back the Bluebirds to win using free bets after taking the lead due to the sheer number of goals they let in from winning positions.

Just a few results recently include relegation-threatened Coventry City equalising three minutes into injury time during last week’s 2-2 draw, Brighton levelled with a minute to go to make the score 2-2 at the Falmer Stadium and City lead Blackpool 1-0 but capitulated to a 3-1 home defeat in February.

Cardiff City even lead at table-topping Southampton, only to draw the match 1-1.

No Sign of “The Beast”

Burly striker Jon Parkin has a great goalscoring record in the Championship and even plundered a hat-trick against the Bluebirds for Preston North End a couple of seasons back in a 6-0 victory.

However, since joining City just over a year ago, Parkin has rarely featured, despite offering a huge presence in attack, akin somewhat to Norwich goalscoring hero Grant Holt.

After scoring his only goal of the season for Cardiff – during a 5-3 Carling Cup victory against Huddersfield in August, Parkin has been sent on loan to Doncaster, Huddersfield and now Scunthorpe when he should be fighting for a place in the Welsh capital.

Kenny Miller hasn’t scored a goal in 13 games and Rudy Gestede, while a decent header of the ball, does not looking up to the rigours of Championship football.

Parkin is big, awkward but possesses a great touch – he’s exactly the sort of player defenders hate playing against. Even if he didn’t start, he’d provide a battering ram against weary legs coming off the bench.

The Same Old Story Under Malky?

City fans may be shocked to see the hard-working, confident and free-scoring team from the start of the season turn into a nervous, shot-shy team devoid of ideas and defensive nous.

But, is it that much of a surprise?

Last season, Malky Mackay had the unenviable task of keeping relegation-favourites Watford in the division and guided the team to fourteenth in the table.

However, after a run of seven wins on the bounce in December and January, the Hornets went on to win just four, losing 10 and drawing seven of their final 21 matches of the season – relegation form by anybody’s standards.

Since beating Reading on 2 January, City have won just three times in 14 league matches, drawn six and lost five.

Not relegation form yet but poor enough to slip out of play-off contention and end a promising season in mid-table obscurity.

Do you have your own thoughts on what has gone wrong at the Cardiff City Stadium? If so, leave them in the comments below!

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Pompey Facing Administration Again?

The big news in the nPower Championship this week is that for the second time in the last three seasons it looks as if Portsmouth will have to go into administration. Although it wasn’t abundantly clear how – or even if – the fraud charges against current owner Vladimir Antonov would affect the future of the football club, Portsmouth have been unable to pay both the taxman or their playing staff.

On the field, after approximately one week where everyone had played the same number of games, the recent postponements have ruined the symmetry of the nPower Championship. Three games were called off last weekend, but Middlesbrough fans made the trip down to Ipswich on the understanding that the game was going ahead, only for the pitch to become unplayable once it was exposed to the elements. Referee Dean Whitestone abandoned the game with about ten minutes left in the first half with the score at 0-0.

Southampton made the most of West Ham’s unexpected week off (the Hammers’ game at Peterborough was amongst those postponed) by beating Burnley at St Mary’s to move into second place. The Saints have now played one more game than three of their nearest rivals, which might be a disadvantage as the season plays out. Birmingham’s game at Barnsley was postponed while Cardiff lost at Leicester, which means that the top two will stay as they are regardless of this evening’s results.

There were no changes at the bottom but there could be big changes in the next week. Although there seems to be confusion about how many points Portsmouth will forfeit and when that punishment will applied, it looks as if the relegation battle may very go down to the wire.

You can tell we’re getting to the end of the season as there are only three full Tuesday night programmes left – so whichever genius programmed fixtures for Valentine’s Day seems to have made up for it by ensuring that there are three big games. Birmingham entertain Hull and the hosts haven’t lost at home this season – in fact the Blues have not lost a league game at St Andrew’s since May – while this is only Tigers second away game against a side in the current top six this season. It’s a bit early to start talking in terms of ‘run ins’ but there’s a real possibility that the Blues could go undefeated at home this season: although they’ve still got to play Middlesbrough, Cardiff & Reading their other remaining home games don’t look that tricky. Tonight’s fascinating stat: Hull have have only won once at St Andrews since the end of the First World War.

Doncaster’s game against Blackpool could be much closer than people think, depending on what kind of side Ian Holloway decides to select. The Tangerines are playing at Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday but they can’t really afford to take risks in the league at this stage. Rovers are on seven game undefeated streak at the Keepmoat Stadium, have only lost one home game to a side in the top six this season and beat Southampton in December.

The big game tonight is West Ham v Southampton. Looking at games between the top six sides, Saints have the best record but that could well because they’ve already played the other five sides at St Mary’s: they’ve been less successful on their travels, losing to Cardiff in September and drawing with Birmingham ten days ago. Historically draws between these two at the Boleyn Ground are few and far between (the last one was in February 1983) but with Southampton having kept consecutive clean sheets on the road and West Ham’s recent habit of grinding out close wins at home it’s entirely within reason that this game could finish all square.

I’ll be back on Friday to look at the games in both the League and FA Cup this weekend, along with any updates on Portsmouth’s financial situation.

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Palace Favourites To Reach Wembley

In a few hours time we’ll know which Championship side will  be expected to provide cannon fodder for either Manchester City or Liverpool in the Carling Cup final.

Although Crystal Palace are slight favourites to qualify for the final, Cardiff are favourites to win tonight. Which might sound slightly barmy until you realise that the Eagles have only lost three of their last ten trips to the Welsh capital in all competitions and that Cardiff really need to win by two goals to have a chance of winning the tie within 90 minutes – something that the hosts are very capable of doing. The Bluebirds have only lost twice at home this season and so it looks as if it could be a tight game.

Palace lost at Blackpool on Saturday but Dougie Freedman did a fantastic job of emulating the managers in the Premier League by naming a team that included precisely none of the team that played in the first leg of the semi final. In contrast, Cardiff’s Malky McKay chose eight of the 11 players who lost at Crystal Palace in his starting eleven for the game against Portsmouth: it’ll be interesting to see which philosophy pays off later on.

With the weekend’s games not finishing until last night, it was always going to be down to the game between Southampton and Leicester to decide who was going to be top of the table going into the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. Unfortunately for the former leaders, Leicester ended their 40 year winless streak at Southampton – which meant that West Ham maintained their lead at the top of the table thanks to their win over Nottingham Forest on Saturday afternoon.

On the face it, Middlesbrough’s 3-1 defeat at Coventry was a shock, but Boro managed to pull of a reasonable impression of Millwall’s thrashing by Birmingham the week before – Kevin Thomson and Julio Arca were both sent off. Boro’s only win this year came against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup and they’re now five points adrift of the automatic promotion places.

Coventry’s win compacted the bottom three rather than made any impact on the teams above them: I’ve already mentioned Forest’s defeat at West Ham and Doncaster lost at Bristol City, results which leave the bottom three four points adrift from safety.

I’ll be back on Friday with a look at the two league games taking place this weekend as well as the fourth round ties in the FA Cup – the pick of which is probably Watford v Spurs on Friday evening – but I’ll post an update as soon as tonight’s game has finished.

Update: despite having scored both goals in the two ties, Anthony Gardner won’t be playing in the Carling Cup final. Cardiff City won on penalties and will play at Wembley.

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There May Not Be Many More Chances To Secure A Promotion Spot…

It was a bit like last season in the nPower Championship last weekend: despite having the means, motive and opportunity to do so, neither Cardiff nor Middlesbrough were able to overtake Southampton and West Ham. Of course, there are plenty of games left but will be there be fewer clear cut opportunities to overtake the top two?

Cardiff’s point at Doncaster shouldn’t have come as a surprise – as I pointed out last week the Bluebirds have a good record at Donny – but Middlesbrough chose last weekend to lose at home to Burnley for the first time in almost 30 years. Southampton and West Ham both won on the road and so in the space of an hour and a half the situation was back to almost exactly the same as it was a fortnight ago.

At the bottom of the table all six teams failed to win – Ipswich moved above Bristol City, but despite establishing a two goal lead over Blackpool the Tractor Boys failed to pick up three points. The biggest losers last weekend weren’t Millwall – although the dismissals of Adam Dunne and Shane Lowry during a 6-0 hammering by Birmingham isn’t exactly a contender for performance of the week – but Coventry City. The Sky Blues not only lost 1-0 at Pride Park, but Lukas Jutkiewicz joined Middlesbrough: the 22 year old striker was responsible for scoring nine of Coventry’s 20 league goals this season and his departure leaves a gap that may not be filled anytime soon.

The FA Cup replays took place earlier in the week: it was the turn of Leicester turn to stop Nottingham Forest from scoring and a hat-trick from Jermaine Beckford ensured that the Foxes will entertain Swindon at the King Power Stadium next weekend. Millwall took their frustrations out on Dagenham & Redbridge with three goals from Darius Henderson and a brace from Harry Kane and will play Southampton. Birmingham became the only Championship side to defeat a Premier League team in the cup so far this when a goal from Wade Elliott at Molineux saw the Blues into the fourth round. Brighton had to come from behind at the Racecourse Ground to beat Wrexham on penalties and will have a lucrative fourth round tie against Newcastle.

There are three candidates for game of the week this weekend: Doncaster visit Bristol City in the only game between teams in the bottom six and a win for either side could prove invaluable in the long term as current form indicates that Nottingham Forest won’t get anything at West Ham. So the choice this week is the potential playoff matchup between Reading at Hull at the Madjeski Stadium.

As you might expect from clubs in fifth and sixth place, neither club has a particularly strong record against the other clubs competing for promotion.  Despite an inconsistent start – as recently as the end of November they were in the bottom half of the table – Reading have only lost one of their last ten league games at home (to Cardiff) whereas Hull have lost at both Middlesbrough and Southampton in the last seven weeks. The Tigers don’t have a particularly good record in Berkshire, having only won twice in the ten visits to Reading since England won the World Cup and this looks like a difficult game for them, especially as Reading have won four consecutive games at the mad house and Hull haven’t been scoring much away from the KC.

Last game of the week is one the rare televised Monday night games outings for Championship teams when Leicester travel to St. Mary’s to take on the leaders (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) . If West Ham can pick up at least a point against Forest – which seems highly likely – than Southampton will have to make sure they don’t lose to Leicester. That outcome is also highly likely as this is yet another one of those games where history is favours one team. Leicester have failed to score in five of their last six games at either St. Mary’s or The Dell and have only won once on the South Coast since 1970.

Apart from Lukas Jutkiewicz’ move to Middlesbrough, there hasn’t been a great deal of business in the transfer market. Norwich have agreed terms with Leeds captain Johnny Howson and Ben Mee has joined Burnley from Manchester City but the two eye catching deals involve a player with no club and an ex-manager. Kelvin Etuhu – jailed for six months following a conviction for assault last year – has joined Portsmouth, while former Doncaster boss Sean O’Driscoll has joined Nottingham Forest as first team coach: if Forest continue their current form, it’s not inconceivable that O’Driscoll may find himself back in management sooner rather than later.

I’ll be back early next week with a round up of this weekend’s games and a preview of the second leg of the Carling Cup semi final. I’m also toying with the idea of having a full scale rant about a certain Premier League manager’s frankly ignorant ideas about having B teams from the Prem playing in the Championship, which I might save for next weekend…

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